The setting alone, in five contiguous medieval stone mansions, makes Barcelona's Museu Picasso unique (and worth the queues). While the collection concentrates on Pablo Picasso's formative years – potentially disappointing lovers of his better-known later works – there is enough material from subsequent periods to showcase the artist's versatility and genius. Above all, you come away feeling that Picasso was the true original, always one step ahead of himself (let alone anyone else), in his search for new forms of expression.
The permanent collection is housed in the Palau Aguilar, Palau del Baró de Castellet and Palau Meca, all dating to the 14th century. The 18th-century Casa Mauri, built over medieval remains (even some Roman leftovers have been identified), and the adjacent 14th-century Palau Finestres, accommodate temporary exhibitions. The elegant courtyards, galleries and staircases preserved in the first three buildings are as delightful as the collection inside.
The collection, which includes more than 3500 artworks, is strongest on Picasso’s earliest years, up until 1904, which is apt considering that the artist spent his formative creative years in Barcelona. Allegedly it was Picasso himself who proposed the museum's creation in 1960, to his friend and personal secretary Jaume Sabartés, a Barcelona native. Three years later, the 'Sabartés Collection' was opened, since a museum bearing Picasso’s name would have been met with censorship – Picasso's opposition to the Franco regime was well known. The Museu Picasso we see today opened in 1983. It originally held only Sabartés' personal collection of Picasso's art and a handful of other works, but the collection gradually expanded with donations from Salvador Dalí and Sebastià Junyer Vidal, among others. However, the largest part of the present collection came from Picasso himself. His widow, Jacqueline Roque, also donated 41 ceramic pieces and the Woman with Bonnet painting after Picasso's death. Sabartés' contribution is honoured with Picasso's famous Blue Period portrait of him wearing a ruff (room B1).
What makes this collection truly impressive – one-of-a-kind among the world's many Picasso museums – is the way in which it displays Picasso's extraordinary talent at such a young age. A visit starts with sketches and oils from his earliest years in Málaga and A Coruña (1893 to 1895). Some of his self-portraits and the portraits of his parents, which date from 1896, are evidence enough of his precocious talent. Retrato de la tía Pepa (Portrait of Aunt Pepa; room 2), done in Málaga in 1896, shows the incredible maturity of his brushstrokes and his ability to portray character – at the tender age of 15. Picasso painted the enormous Ciència i caritat (Science and Charity; room 3) in the same year, showcasing his masterful academic techniques of portraiture. His ingeniousness extends to his models too, with his father standing in for the doctor, and a beggar, whom he hired off the street along with her offspring, modelling the sick woman and the child. This painting caused the young artist to be noticed in the higher echelons of Spain's art world, when Ciència i caritat was awarded an Honorary Mention at the General Fine Arts Exhibition in Madrid in 1897.
In rooms 5 to 7 hang paintings from his first Paris sojourn, while room 8 is dedicated to the first significant new stage in his development, the Blue Period. Woman with Bonnet is an important work from this period, depicting a detainee from the Saint-Lazare women's prison and venereal disease hospital that Picasso visited when in Paris – this also sets up the theme of Picasso's fascination with those inhabiting the down-and-out layers of society.
His nocturnal blue-tinted views of Terrats de Barcelona (Roofs of Barcelona; room 8) and El foll (The Madman; often on loan) are cold and cheerless, yet somehow alive. Terrats de Barcelona was painted during his second stint at the 17 Carrer de la Riera Sant Joan studio in 1903 – he painted the city rooftops frequently, from different perspectives in this period.
A few cubist paintings pop up in rooms 10 and 11; check the Glass and Tobacco Packet still-life painting, a beautiful and simple work. Picasso started to experiment with still life in 1924 – something he'd done before but had not taken to as seriously as he would from here on.
From 1954 to 1962 Picasso was obsessed with the idea of researching and ‘rediscovering’ the greats, in particular Velázquez. In 1957 he made a series of renditions of Velázquez' masterpiece Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting), now displayed in rooms 12 to 14. It is as though Picasso has looked at the original Velázquez painting through a prism reflecting all the styles he had worked through until then, creating his own masterpiece in the process. This is a wonderful opportunity to see Las meninas in its entirety, in a beautiful space.
What is also special about the Museu Picasso is its showcasing of his work in lesser-known media. The last rooms contain Picasso's engravings and 42 ceramic pieces completed throughout the latter years of his unceasingly creative life. You'll see plates and bowls decorated with simple, single-line drawings of fish, owls and other animal shapes, typical for Picasso's daubing on clay. Room 16, meanwhile, displays portraits of Jacqueline from the 1960s.